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posted on 15 June 2017

Greenie Techno-Cornucopianism

by Reverse Engineer, Doomstead Diner

I regularly cross-post the work of Albert Bates here on the Diner. He's a true Hero of the Revolution, going back to the 1970s when The Farm was founded as part of the Back to the Land Movement of the era.

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The Farm has gone through its ups and downs over the intervening decades, but unlike many other experiments from the era it does still exist, and AB is still there. Well, at least he is when he's not Jet Setting around the world to attend Climate Conferences or give Permaculture courses. Albert takes a decent amount of criticism for this, since flying around in Jet Planes is one of the most unsustainable aspects of our industrial civilization, and on a per capita basis is arguably the MOST unsustainable.

AB defends his Global Jet Setting by planting trees, with the assumption that over the lifetime of the tree, it will soak up more carbon than he is burning in a trip to London on British Airways. Of course, this calculation doesn't work if the tree burns down or dies from some sort of infestation or plain old drought. However, I don't find travelling around by jet to be hypocritical at all in the context of trying to bring the message of climate change and sustainable living to more people. For the time being, these planes will fly whether AB is on board or not, or being dragged off said planes kicking and screaming due to overbooking. Boycotting flying wouldn't do a damn thing to Save the Planet, but going out there with missionary zeal to wake up more people might have some effect. So on balance this is a positive thing to be doing in his declining years using the reputation he developed as an international expert on many of these topics.

However, as I continue to read and cross post ABs work, I have become increasingly dissatisfied with the form of techno-cornucopianism he has been pitching lately, similar in many ways to what another cross poster I feature regularly, Ugo Bardi of the University of Florence, The Club of Rome and Cassandra's Legacy pitches. In the case of UB, he pitches Renewable Energy, specifically Photovoltaics as a means to salvage at least part of our high tech lifestyle. In AB's case, he pitches Permaculture and Carbon Sequestration through Bio-Char as means to sustainably feed ourselves and to if not stop, at least slow down climate change.

Besides that, AB has now latched onto another Greeny Dreamy idea, going back to Sailboats to replace all the airplanes burning tons of jet fuel every day to ship around Homo Sap Meat Packages. Here is the recent high tech sail dream from AB to replace our current fleet of planes and container ships with more Earth-Friendly sailboats:

Atlantic Dreams

Will Nodvik, who studied Computer Engineering at NYU Tandon School of Engineering, writes on Quora:

The foiling AC-72s sailed [in 2013] during the America’s Cup top out at around 40 knots in super heavy conditions. Average container ships move at around 20 knots. The mast on an AC-72 is 40m high. Keep in mind that this mast is a rigid wing. The AC-72 is the lightest, fastest, most highly advanced boat. These masts are the strongest material possible since no expense was spared in their construction.

Forty knots (46 mph) is still only 8 percent of the cruising speed of a Boeing 747. Figure three and one half days, if top speed could be held the whole way.

The America’s Cup Challenge resumes this June in Bermuda’s Great Sound. The AC-72 (72-foot) yacht that Oracle Team USA sailed to a historic come-from-behind 9-8 victory over Emirates Team New Zealand on San Francisco Bay in September 2013 is gone. Obsolete.

Replacing it is a smaller, lighter AC-50 (50-foot) catamaran with 79-foot carbon fiber wing sail and new alloy hydrofoils to give it near zero drag. All the competitors in this year’s trials are expected to fly above water for 100% of the race time.

The sail’s drag is one-third to one-half that of four years ago, while producing about twice as much power. The control system comes from the Airbus A350 XWB airliner, compiling a terabyte per race collected from as many as 1,000 sensors fed into the Oracle Exadata supercomputer for instant analysis. Oracle will predict wind patterns (within half a knot accuracy) all the way down to 100-meter or even 50-meter grids on the racecourse. The sailors - a six man crew (down from 11 in 2013), need only glance at smart watches connected to a small onboard Linux server, to know what they need to do.

Speeds approaching 60 mph are possible in the Bermuda races - about 20% faster than in 2013. That would get us down to a two day Atlantic crossing.

More importantly, the days spent on crossing by sail put nothing into the atmosphere except the breath of the sailors. Today’s commercial passenger fleet is responsible for 3 to 5 percent of climate forcing, on its way to 15 percent according to some IPCC projections. Clearly it is going in the wrong direction.

While it is really cool to think about all this high tech stuff, it's also thoroughly unrealistic for many reasons, on the physics and mechanics end as well as on the economic end. I wrote this response to his article in his commentariat:

Another artifact of climate change is bigger seas and more rogue waves. In even mildly rough seas, you can't hydroplane a sailboat. You need pretty flat water for this. So it's pretty unlikely you could maintain a constant hydroplane speed all the way across the Atlantic or Pacific oceans.

Then you have the fact these high tech boats are built from the lightest weight polymers and carbon fiber material, which all have tons of embedded energy in their manufacture. The computer systems and servos controlling sail trim are extremely complex, requiring the usual kit bag of rare earth minerals and complex manufacturing facilities.

Even if you do build them, they can't carry much payload. The whole reason they will hydroplane is because there is so little weight being carried aboard. You absolutely could not build any facsimile of a modern container ship and have it hydroplane.

Not to say of course sail will not make a comeback, it probably will but not the sort of high tech sail you are featuring in this post. Much smaller boats, and floating in the water not skimming along the surface. Such boats will not be able to move around the vast amount of cargo container ships do, and thus will not be able to support such a large population moving food around the globe.

There is no techno-cornucopian solution to this problem, the only thing that can bring Homo Sap back into balance with nature and maintain the habitability of the planet is a massive die off of the current population. If you knock off 90-99% of the human population, some of the solutions you write about could work. They do NOT scale to a population of 7.5B meat packages.


AB is not the only Doomer out there with the Sailboat Dream, you also have Dmitry Orlov of Club Orlov living on his sailboat and Ray Jason of The Sea Gypsy Philosopher living on his, plus innumerable other Yachties cruising the Bahamas, the Greek Islands and the South Pacific and enjoying their sense of "independence". The lifestyle gives the illusion of being FREE, able to move where you want as necessary to avoid the worst aspects of collapse if they happen to arrive in your neighborhood.

By NO MEANS however is such a life either sustainable or self-sufficient. Everybody who lives this way has some form of external income, generally retirees with a pension although a smattering of others such as writers and IT programmers who have portable professions. Dmitry for example makes his living these days bloviating his opinions about Collapse, promoting Mother Russia and insulting various feminist groups. This job can be done anywhere on earth, and Dmitry does these things well enough to make a living at it. lol. A few of the younger mostly male ones will also take gig jobs on making port somewhere and use the money to resupply with another couple of months of food and then sail to some remote cove and pretend to be Robinson Crusoe or the Swiss Family Robinson.

I sincerely doubt there is ANYONE out there who lives aboard a 30-40' sailboat who gains all his sustenance from fishing and harvesting coconuts on South Pacific beaches. On board a sailboat of this size, if you are a solo sailor and stick to compact dried foods, you might be able to stuff it with 6 months of supplies. If there are 2 of you, reduce by half. In a good fishing and gathering neighborhood, you might be able to double the amount of time you could spend doing the Swiss Family Robinson before needing to head back to civilization for a resupply.

Beyond the Food Problem of course is the Security Problem. Most of the places the Yachties currently frequent are Tourist Traps which use the tourist economy as their driver. Most of the nicer ones sporting Marinas in the Bahamas or Panama are pretty safe at the moment, the customs officials are fairly polite (although always looking for a bribe) and the Marina Convenience Store has bags of rice you can buy if you have Dollars or Euros to spend. Free Wi-Fi too in many cases.

This pleasant safety and convenience begins to disappear rapidly though if you sail outside of these enclaves of retired yachties and are cruising off the coast of say Somalia. There are already locals in this neighborhood who smell a good possibility for a Ransom Demand if they spy your sails on the horizon, and send out a fishing boat to greet you, complete with automatic weapons. Say bye bye to your sea mobile home and hope there is somebody back home who will cough up the ransom demand. This situation is not going to improve as the general economics further spin down. Finding a place to safely moor your vessel with any kind of local population size will be extremely difficult, so now you are back to trying to do Robinson Crusoe, which just about nobody from industrial culture can really do.

Beyond the Food & Safety issues is the maintenance issue. Anyone who has ever owned a boat of even moderate size knows they are a total money sink and stuff breaks all the time. Standing & Running rigging wears out, Winches break, the auxiliary engine quits, sails get ripped in a storm…etc etc etc. You have to have ports around to get parts and do some repairs you can't do yourself, even if you are a mechanical genius. You need a haul out and bottom job every so often with anti-fouling paint (an oil product). If you could keep your sailboat in good working order for 3 years without access to replacement equipment and a well stocked marine supply store I would be shocked.

The paradigm for shifting back to sail on the commercial shipping level is in many respects even worse than trying to make the small sailboat Seasteading paradigm work. Modern container ships move enormous amounts of cargo, which in order to load and unload requires enormous ports with oil powered cranes to move the containers on and off the ships. The days of longshoremen unloading ships by hand are long gone. This is how we are able to move the massive amount of goods we do around the world to keep 7.5B people fed and clothed. The last time we were regularly transporting around goods by sail the global population was around 1.5B people, and most of them were not even on this network. The world was largely populated by subsistence farmers.

Today, many areas of the world can't grow enough food to feed their own populations (see Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen etc, etc,etc), so unless you have the means to ship around enormous quantities of food sufficient to feed entire countries, you're going to have a lot of starving people. Sailboats aren't going to do the trick here even if you could build enough of them fast enough and train a whole new generation of people to be able to sail them. This is just not going to happen, not on the scale necessary for keeping 7.5B Homo Saps walking the earth. So once again you need to reconcile yourself to the fact a large culling of the human population is coming down the pipe, and sailboats and permaculture aren't going to stop it. This is just techno-cornucopian hopium, dressed up in Green outfit.

The Solar PV solutions Ugo Bardi promotes are very similar. They simply don't scale up to apply to such a large population. Forgetting all the embedded energy and mining necessary to produce enough Solar Panels is the huge scale up of the current decaying electrical grids to handle the loads necessary for running all the carz, trucks and trains on electricity. Current wiring isn't near thick enough to handle the load even if you cut the fleet of vehicles by half. Where is all the copper going to come from to run wiring from your Solar or Windfarm to electric charging stations all over the country? The best you might do here is have intermittently available electricity at the local level, but this again does not maintain current population levels or anywhere near the current standard of living in 1st World nations. I highly doubt also any 3rd World nations are going to get wired up with massive Wind & Solar farms either. If they didn't get electricity yet, they're not going to get it. Which of course might be good for them, since they won't miss it too much when it's gone.

Finally on the scale of techno-cornucopian solutions for today of stuff that just ain't gonna happen is ABs ongoing mission for Bio-Char as a solution to sequestering carbon and keeping Planet Earth from turning into a facsimile of Venus. What this generally amounts to as I understand it to is planting a shit load of trees, turning them into charcoal briquets and then burying the briquets for soil ammendation. The amount of area that needs to be reforested this way is enormous, and then how with the remaining arable land mass you will feed 7.5B people without the use of fertilizers, pesticides, tractors & combines is somewhat unclear. Also unclear is whether the climate in many areas will even support reforesting at all? I think you would have a pretty tough time these days reforesting Syria and turning it into the lush Garden of Eden it once was 5000 years ago.

All of this speaks to the problem of Irreversibility, which theoretical physicist David Korowicz covered quite extensively in his seminal paper Trade Off: Financial System Supply-chain Cross Contagion - a study in global systemic collapse. In particular many of the earlier systems we used are simply no longer practical or even available to shift back to now. New "high tech" solutions don't scale up as necessary, and certainly not inside the time frame we have to work with, which most certainly is less than 30 years before we see extreme dislocations to the current system. Many are occurring now as we speak, but are for the most part at the moment confined to 3rd World nations and not too much of a bother to the 1st World ones. Any unbiased and clear headed analysis of all these variables and the difficulties that exist in implementing any of the solutions should inform you that we are in the midst of a clusterfuck of Biblical proportions, and Greeny Cornucopianism isn't going to solve the problems any more than Cold Fusion will.

Given this information then, WHY do clearly very intelligent and wel educated people like Ugo Bardi and Albert Bates continue to promote ideas which just aren't very likely to work, and in fact are counter productive because they are a waste of time, money and energy? That is pretty simple to understand, it's the "Reverse Guy McPherson" effect. Whereas in Dr. McStinksion's case he has given up ALL HOPE and considers Homo Saps and the Planet all DOOMED to Near Term Human Extinction by his latest prognostication of 2026, AB and UB maintain a tenacious grasp on SOME hope that we can yank ourselves out of this mess. I hold out that hope myself, but I do so in what I consider a more realistic manner, which is to acknowledge the inevitability of a MASSIVE DIEOFF of the human population, probably greater than 99%. This is something neither UB or AB wishes to acknowledge. In fact, I would agree with them on some of their solutions if they would acknowledge a massive dieoff is inevitable now, I think they could work with a vastly reduced population size. I definitely think the Reverse Guy McPherson POV they pitch is the superior mindset to the Guy McPherson one, even if it is utterly unrealistic. Professor McStinksion's philosophy is just utterly defeatist.

So, if we can't reforest the earth, we can't replace the fleet of container ships with green and friendly sailboats, we can't wire the world with Solar PV Panels, we can't stop the climate from warming up and we can't keep most the Homo Sap meat packages currently walking the Earth alive, just WTF CAN we do here beside join Guy McPherson in his nihilistic & misanthropic Death Cult? What we can do is to start building Lifeboats to SAVE AS MANY AS WE CAN.

What building lifeboats in this context means is to consider locations on the earth that will likely IMPROVE in their ability to support human life as the overall temperature regime increase. Alaska where I live is one such location. A 10C average increase in temperatures around here on the Last Great Frontier would make the place positively balmy and pleasant. As the Permafrost melts, that could provide thousands of hectares of fertile land upon which to grow crops. We can also begin to breed new crops resistant to extreme weather, and we can build grow domes to do food production in a controlled environment. We can change our building techniques and excavate to live partially underground, where the average temperature of the land mass runs around 66F. Building such survival communities at high latitudes and high elevations, we can save a portion of the human population. It might only be .1%, but that is still 7.5M people, which is a lot more than the ZERO that Dr. McStinksion Guy McPherson predicts for 2026!

Over time, with far fewer people infesting the earth and no more burning of fossil fuels, the global climate will begin its long road to recovery, which might take thousands or even millions of years. In the interim, the great experiment with Sapience will continue, and those who make it through the Zero Point will have the opportunity to evolve into a new and better species, one with more true wisdom.

We have to own up to what is REALISTIC here, not pie in the sky, rainbow shitting unicorn, greenie dreamie fantasies of a world of 7.5B people running in peace and harmony on permaculture and renewable energy. This is just NOT in the cards at this point. We can't save everybody. We can only SAVE AS MANY AS WE CAN. That's where the efforts of our best and brightest need to go, not into wasting time, energy, money and brain power on faulty solutions that will not succeed. No more Skittle Shitting Unicorns!

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